The Disentanglement of Jony Ive From Apple

Tripp Mickle, of the New York Times, in an adapted excerpt from his book “After Steve” which will be released on Tuesday:1

It was 2014, and Apple’s future, more than ever, seemed to hinge on Mr. Ive. His love of pure, simple lines had already redrawn the world through such popular products as the iMac, iPod and iPhone. Now, he was seated at a conference table with Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, the two men embodying nearly 40 years of collaboration, with one designing and the other assembling the devices that turned a failing business into the world’s largest company. They both wanted another hit, but Mr. Ive was pushing for a product reveal more audacious than any in the theatrical company’s history.

The Apple Watch was slated to be introduced at a local community college auditorium near the company’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. To bring cosmopolitan gloss to a suburban landscape of strip malls, Mr. Ive recommended removing two dozen trees and erecting a lavish white tent.

His extravagant vision wasn’t going over well.

“They want $25 million,” a colleague said of the event’s price tag.

Apple marketers at the table were aghast. Few could comprehend the logistics of moving trees, much less the staggering cost.

You know me — I just had to see this for myself. And it does appear that Apple temporarily relocated several trees for the construction of the hands-on area at the Apple Watch introduction. Based on the aerial imagery in Google Earth, they were planted some time between September 2011 and May 2012 and were not large. It sounds more laborious in Mickle’s telling than I think is warranted.

This is yet another in the ongoing series of articles establishing Ive as a relic of an Apple that was, in several retellings, preoccupied with form over function, and regularly invented new product categories out of thin air. In the decade since Steve Jobs’ death, so the story goes, Apple has been reduced to a successful financial instrument.

I have been admittedly simplistic, but this narrative often approaches this simpler form, and I do not buy it. Jobs, Ive, and Tim Cook are all clearly pivotal figures in Apple’s resurgent history, but it is possible to overstate their individual contributions in a desire for a simple narrative.

Clay Shirky reviewed Mickle’s book for the Times:

In the epilogue, Mickle drops his reporter’s detachment to apportion responsibility for the firm’s failure to launch another transformative product. Cook is blamed for being aloof and unknowable, a bad partner for Ive, “an artist who wanted to bring empathy to every product.” Ive is also dinged for taking on “responsibility for software design and the management burdens that he soon came to disdain.” By the end, the sense that the two missed a chance to create a worthy successor to the iPhone is palpable.

It’s also hooey, and the best evidence for that is the previous 400 pages. It’s true that after Jobs died, Apple didn’t produce another device as important as the iPhone, but Apple didn’t produce another device that important before he died either. It’s also true that Cook did not play the role of C.E.O. as Jobs had, but no one ever thought he could, including Jobs, who on his deathbed advised Cook never to ask what Steve would do: “Just do what’s right.”

I am sure Mickle has some good sources; he wrote extensively about Apple while a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, a position he held until earlier this year. (He is now at the Times.) I am interested to read this new book, despite its apparent slant. I obviously cannot say anything about this book yet, so I do not want to get ahead of myself.

But it does seem telling how the Times excerpt at the top of this article centres around the September 2014 Apple event. It may be best remembered as the unveiling of the Apple Watch, but much of the post-Jobs era of the company can trace its roots back to that day, with the introduction of two other critical things: Apple Pay, Apple’s first big internet services push since iCloud; and the iPhone 6 series, which remains the best-selling line of iPhones the company has ever released.

The iPhone does not need to be replaced by the next successful product. In its earliest incarnations, it was a Mac accessory. In hindsight, Apple’s push into services and accessories — AirPods being another hit — seems well-timed. Not only has it not invented another product of the impact of the Mac or iPhone, none of its competitors have either. Can you think of a product category that is waiting for an Apple-like magical touch? I am not sure I can. I think Mickle underplays how redefining the Apple Watch was in its market, and the same for the company’s own silicon. But if we are seeking a better designed, more well-considered version of a nascent tech category, not one stands out to me.

  1. One little aside: I find Mickle’s use of the phrase “the two men embodying nearly 40 years of collaboration” rather misleading. Combined experience is one of those crappy false inflations that makes no sense, and it is even less sensible here. Why not write about how the two have been collaborating for about twenty years? That is still impressive and is more honest. ↥︎